Western powers and Russia butt heads over Syria monitoring mission

The United States and its European allies are heading for another dust up in the Security Council over the strategy for reinforcing a shaky U.N.-brokered cease-fire, according to U.N. diplomats.

The council's European powers, Britain and France, tabled a draft resolution that would require Syria meet its commitment to provide U.N. monitors with freedom of movement and unimpeded access to any sources in the country or face the threat of U.N. sanctions. Russia, meanwhile, is now pushing a competing resolution that would not threaten Syria with any fresh penalties if fails to comply with its requirements. (See note below)

The competing drafts both support a proposal by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to establish a full-fledged U.N. monitoring mission of at least 300 blue berets, and likely more down the road, with freedom of movement and unimpeded access to individuals within Syria.

But the Western draft, which was distributed to the council by France, goes much further, condemning Syria's violent repression of civilians during the past year, and places sharper demands on Damascus to order their forces back to the barracks.

The Western draft also included a provision, which is being hotly contested by Moscow, threatening to adopt measures under article 41 of the U.N. charter -- a reference to sanctions -- if Syria fails to meet its "commitments in their entirety"  to "withdraw its troops and heavy weapons from population centers to their barracks to facilitate a sustained cessation of violence."

On Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that governments need to "start moving very vigorously in the Security Council" towards the adoption of a sanctions resolution including travel, financial sanctions, and an arms embargo to pressure the regime to comply with special emissary Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan. But she acknowledged that Russia is still likely to veto any U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Syria. She also voiced concern about the viability of the new observer mission, raising the prospects, however unlikely, that the council may pull the plug on a U.N. mission before it gets fully going.

"We're in a dilemma," she said. "We think it's important to get independent sources of observation and reporting on the ground, but we do not want to create a situation where those who are sent in to do this mission themselves are subjected to violence."

The latest diplomatic scuffle comes one day after the U.N. and Syria reached agreement this week on a so-called "preliminary agreement" that sets the operating terms for a small team of U.N. monitors that have struggled in recent days to test the will of the Syrian government to let them document abuses in a conflict that may have left more than 11,000 dead.

The new 8-page pact -- which was obtained by Turtle Bay from a U.N. diplomat -- furnishes the monitors with some vital powers, including the authority to import communications equipment and conduct unobstructed communications with U.N. headquarters, that a failed Arab League monitoring mission earlier this year lacked.

But there remain unresolved matters: for instance, Syria has not yet agreed to permit the U.N. to bring in its own planes or helicopters to transport the monitors to a hot spot at a moment's notice. The U.N.'s assistant secretary general for peacekeeping, Edmond Mulet, told the Security Council behind closed doors on Thursday that a pact on U.N. air assets is vital to the monitors' success and that the U.N. would try to strike a deal with the Syrians by the time an expanded U.N. monitoring mission could be deployed.

So far, Ban and other top U.N. officials say that while Syria has yet to fully meet its obligations to withdraw troops and heavy weapons from Syrian towns, and though it initially blocked the observer team from traveling to the city of Homs, they still believe there is value in expanding the size of the U.N. monitoring mission over the coming weeks, and reinforcing its technical capacity.

After three days of frustrating patrols aimed at testing their freedom of movement, the monitors took a break from their patrols today. Ahmed Fawzi, the chief spokesman for Annan, told Turtle Bay the monitors were "regrouping, reassessing" and planning for a new round of patrols on Saturday.

U.N. officials said that the monitors are straining to find a way to do their work under conditions that are complicated by the intensive interest of media, who have been tracking their every step, the large crowds that have poured into the streets to greet them during patrols, a loosely organized armed opposition, and a government that has not yet fully resigned itself to its commitment to submit to outside scrutiny.

A routine patrol to the town of Arbeen underscored the risks of monitoring in a country that remains in a state of conflict. A U.N. convoy was approached by a crowd of protesters that "forced UN vehicles to a checkpoint," according to a report by Ban to the UNSC.  "Subsequently, the crowd was dispersed by firing projectiles. Those responsible for the firing could not be ascertained by the United Nations Military Observers."

Ban wrote that that "it remains a challenge to  assess accurately unconfirmed and conflicting reports of developments in Syria. He said that while "levels of violence dropped markedly" in the days following a April 12 U.N.-brokered cease-fire, "violent incidents and reports of casualties have escalated again in recent days, with reports of shelling of civilian areas and abuses by government forces. The Government reports violent actions by armed groups. The cessation of armed violence in all its forms is therefore clearly incomplete."

(note: an earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the U.S. joined Britain and France in tabling a draft resolution on U.N. monitors. However, the U.S. was closely involved in the drafts preparation, according to a council source. The council is currently negotiating on the basis of the Russian text.) 

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